A racially mixed jury this week absolved a white MARTA police officer of wrongdoing in the death of a black man in a controversial shooting.
The parents of Joetavius “Jo Jo” Stafford sued the transit agency contending one of its officers had improperly caused the death of their 19-year-old son when he shot him twice in the back and once in the chest at the Vine City MARTA rail station during an attempted arrest.
The transit agency had feared the current climate of skepticism regarding police shootings from Ferguson. Mo., to metro Atlanta might tilt the scales against MARTA in jury deliberations, said Thomas G. Sampson, attorney for MARTA.
Instead, the jury of seven whites and five blacks found in favor of the transit agency Tuesday in just over two hours, he said. The family had asked the jury to award $3 million, he said.
“We told them that this wasn’t Ferguson,” Sampson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The shooting, however, was controversial with some witnesses contending it was unnecessary. It happened during a street brawl following high-school football playoffs at the Georgia Dome in 2011.
Stafford was seen firing a pistol moments before the shooting but was unarmed when shot. Officer Robert Waldo, who was pursing Stafford, said he shot because he thought the teenager was turning to fire at him.
Other witnesses, including Stafford’s friends, said they believed he was surrendering. The gun was found in some bushes through which Stafford had fled, according to a Georgia Bureau of Investigation report.
“The verdict confirms MARTA’s position that the officer’s actions in this unfortunate and tragic incident were justified, a fact that was previously confirmed by an independent investigation conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation,” MARTA spokesman Lyle Harris said in a statement Thursday night.
District Attorney Paul Howard had declined to seek a criminal indictment against Waldo.
Craig T. Jones, the lawyer for the Stafford family, said the case was a difficult one that could have gone either way, depending on how reasonable jurors found Waldo’s actions.
“It was difficult for us because my clients’ son had a gun, and we could not prove that the officer who shot him knew that he had ditched the gun while he was running away from the scene,” Jones said in an email. “It was difficult for MARTA because they had to justify shooting someone in the back who was running away.”
The evidence showed Stafford and his group had seen a cadre of other teens at the football game with whom they had previous confrontation, Sampson said.
Stafford then texted a friend about 90 minutes before the shooting that he needed his “strap,” referring to his gun, Sampson said.
Outside the Dome, a brawl developed in the vicinity of the Vine City Rail station and officers were trying to contain the violence in the streets and keepit out of the station, Sampson said.
One officer had to pepper spray Stafford to break up a fight, and the teenager then went to a car where he apparently got a pistol, Sampson said.
Waldo then witnessed him fire it in the crowd and ordered him to drop the weapon, Sampson said. Instead Stafford fled behind the station where Waldo shot him. The bullet angles supported Waldo’s contention Stafford was turning toward him, and he could not see whether Stafford still had a gun in his right hand, Sampson said
The fact that Waldo didn’t fire when Stafford first discharged his weapon showed he wasn’t trigger-happy, Sampson said. Instead, the officer only fired when he thought Stafford was turning to fire at him, Sampson said.
“They (jurors) concluded the officer may have been mistaken, but his actions were reasonable based on what he knew and didn’t know in the split second he had to act,” Jones said. “My clients are glad that it is over and they can move forward with their lives.”
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